A recently vacated “gag order” in the prosecution of an illegal Russian foreign agent could negatively affect South Dakotan Paul Erickson, prosecutors have indicated.
The Russian agent, Maria Butina, took a plea deal and pleaded guilty Dec. 13 in Washington, D.C. She acknowledged conspiring with a Russian official and someone else described as “U.S. Person 1” to infiltrate and influence American political groups on behalf of Russia, without required registration as a foreign agent. “U.S. Person 1” is widely believed to be Butina’s boyfriend, Erickson.
Butina will be sentenced at a later date and has a status conference scheduled in February; meanwhile, lawyers on each side of her case filed opposing arguments last week about a court-ordered prohibition against speaking to the media.
U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan, who filed the order in September, vacated the order on Friday after reviewing arguments from both sides. The order had prohibited all parties in the case from making statements to the media or in other public settings that could pose a substantial likelihood of material prejudice to the case.
When Chutkan vacated the order Friday, she also issued this warning: "Attorneys are reminded to adhere to Local Criminal Rule 57.7(b)." That rule, which pertains to the conduct of attorneys in criminal cases, includes some prohibitions against certain kinds of public statements and releases of information to the public.
The prosecution wanted the September order to remain in place through Butina’s sentencing, for several reasons. One reason pertains to Butina’s promise, in her plea agreement, to cooperate with federal, state and local law enforcement.
“Keeping the order in place through sentencing would safeguard the rights of any potential defendants who may later be charged in connection with this matter, especially if any other person is charged as a result of the defendant’s cooperation,” the prosecution wrote.
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There is rampant speculation that Erickson could be a future defendant. Although the identity of “U.S. Person 1” has not been formally disclosed, court documents say U.S. Person 1 and Butina cohabited. Butina’s attorney, Robert Driscoll, has described Erickson as Butina’s boyfriend.
Prior to the imposition of the September “gag order,” as Driscoll describes it, he spoke at length about the Butina case in the media. He filed a document last week asking for the order to be lifted.
“Because the plea has already occurred, it is hard to imagine an instance in which there could be a ‘substantial likelihood’ that a statement could influence the fair administration of justice, as the parties responsible for that administration at this point are the court, the government, and defense counsel, all of whom are sophisticated parties likely to be unaffected by media coverage,” Driscoll wrote.
Driscoll did not immediately respond to messages from the Journal, and the prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia have consistently declined to comment on the Butina case while it's pending.
Erickson has kept a low profile throughout the Butina prosecution, but his lawyer, William Hurd, recently issued a statement to the media. “Paul Erickson is a good American,” the statement said. “He has done nothing to harm our country and never would.”
Erickson grew up in Vermillion and has had a Sioux Falls apartment in recent years. His colorful life prior to his involvement with Butina included working as a top staffer in Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign, and serving as an entertainment agent for John Wayne Bobbitt after Bobbitt’s penis was infamously severed in 1993.
Erickson, 57, and Butina, 30, reportedly met several years ago while she was operating a gun-rights group in Russia and was cultivating connections with American gun-rights activists.